Dapper as usual, in a brown suit, sits B R Ambedkar. But unlike his customary Constitution-in-hand, index-finger-pointing look, this is a more relaxed Ambedkar, lounging on a sofa, left hand across its back, welcoming people to the 128th Baba Saheb Ambedkar Jayantotsava (birth anniversary celebrations) on April 14. Past this poster, past a ‘Bhimraj kirana and tea stall’, past the Buddha Mandir, past the blue Jai Bhim flags lies Buddha Nagar, one of the oldest slum colonies in north Karnataka’s Gulbarga city, which now goes by its older name Kalaburagi.
The colony faces the Gulbarga railway station and train horns, long and piercing, punctuate almost every conversation in Buddha Nagar. They force its residents to pause mid-sentence, shut their eyes in deference to this interruption they have little control over, and, after it has died down, pick up from where they left off. But Sharanamma Anappa Duttargi, the 30-year-old district president of Priyadarshini, the Congress’s cadre for young women, won’t let the train horn drown her voice.
“Have you heard our Kharge saab in Parliament? Sher hain woh (He is like a tiger),” she says, playing a video on her phone, snippets from Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s speeches in Parliament edited into a video, where Kharge, in turns, bangs his fist on the table and punches the air, as he tears apart the Treasury benches on everything from triple talaq to mob lynchings.
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A week ahead of April 23, when the reserved Gulbarga Lok Sabha seat votes along with 14 constituencies in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, the only talk in Buddha Nagar and Gulbarga city is of “Namma Babasaheb avara janmadina (our Babasaheb’s birthday)”, the only posters are of Ambedkar, and the only flags are the blue of Jai Bhim and the multi-coloured Buddhist ones. But Buddha Nagar makes a concession for Kharge, the Congress’s leader in the Lok Sabha and the party’s sitting MP who is seeking re-election. “Kharge saab is different, he is one of us, namma Jai Bhim jaati (our Jai Bhim caste),” says Sunil Manpade, a Dalit theatre activist in the city.
Sometime in the 1960s and 70s, as a growing Gulbarga city and its textile and cement mills attracted labourers and the working classes from some of the poorer areas of the larger Hyderabad-Karnataka region such as Yadgir and Raichur, a few shanties sprouted along the railway station. One of these grew to become Buddha Nagar. Click here for more election news
“Besides Buddha Nagar, the mill workers also settled down in Tarfail and Basava Nagar areas in the city. Kharge was then a powerful trade union leader for workers of the city’s MSK textile mill and he resisted several eviction attempts in these colonies. Finally, sometime in the 1980s, Buddha Nagar was declared a slum. So people living here, many of them descendents of those mill workers, are heavily indebted to Kharge that they at least have a roof over their heads,” says R K Hudagi, a retired professor and a former activist of the Left-affiliated union CITU. This election, Hudagi has associated himself with Kharge’s campaign to “make sure secularism stays alive — though the Congress failed to take on the BJP effectively enough”.
So while Buddha Nagar, a colony of over 200 households, mostly of the Dalit Holaya community along with some Muslim families, owes its existence to Kharge, what holds them together is Ambedkar and the “Jai Bhim” greetings that they exchange. Almost every household in the colony has an Ambedkar photograph on the wall or on pedastals, lit up by lamps in the evenings.
Over the years, while its neighbourhoods Shahbaz Colony and Tarfail, localities along the same side of the railway track, have made steady progress, Buddha Nagar has barely moved, much like the stationary goods train these days on one of the outer tracks of the Gulbarga station.
With its shopping malls, educational institutions and now an airport, Gulbarga displays all the gloss of a growing city, yet the district itself is among the poorest in the state. According to the Karnataka Economic Survey of 2018-19, seven of its bottom 10 districts in terms of per capita income are located in the north, with Gulbarga bringing up the rear. At Rs 65,493, the district’s per capita income is 53.9% below the state average.
Today, April 14, is Buddha Nagar’s big day — and Sharanamma’s. She has to attend a meeting in morning at the Congress office in the city and then head to the market nearby to pick her white-and-blue blouse that she will wear this evening. “Blue, that’s our Jai Bhim colour. I bought the sari for Rs 3,000. The tailor was supposed to drop the blouse off last evening. I may have to go to the market to pick it up,“ says the 30-year-old, pulling out a white shirt and blue denim skirt for her 11-year-old daughter. “Bhim Jayanti is our only festival, and the biggest. All of us buy new clothes, make puris and holige (a sweet dish, obattu or puran poli in other parts), and do a puja of Ambedkar in the evening.”
Sharanamma’s is among the bigger houses in the area and one of the few with a toilet. The family of six siblings lives in two houses in the same compound — one, a single-room tin-roof house, and the other, a bigger one with tiled floors that her younger brother, a ‘bill collector’ with the municipal corporation, built. Sharanamma has been living here with her two children after her marriage to a mason working in Goa ran into trouble some years ago. She works in the district court as a lawyer’s clerk for Rs 10,000 a month and supplements it with money from singing at private events.
Her other siblings do odd jobs, but Sharanamma isn’t settling for anything small. “Politics is my passion. Before being appointed Priyadarshini district president, I travelled to Delhi and was interviewed by Congress leader Aditi Singh,” she says.
“I have worked very hard for this colony. Some years ago, I led a group of women and children to the municipal commissioner’s office in the city to protest against the lack of toilets here. We carried chembu (plastic vessels or lota that people in Buddha Nagar carry when they go to the tracks to relieve themselves) and banged them on the ground till the officials came out. They promised to do something, but they still haven’t. Our corporator is from the Congress, but I don’t even remember his name… he is no good,” she says.
So Sharanamma plans to stand for municipal elections next time. “That’s my sabse bada ambition,” she says, pausing to show her WhatsApp profile — a picture of her with Kharge’s son Priyank, the MLA from Chittapur, taken at a party event.
“These days, I am so busy I hardly have time for my children,” she adds, stroking her daughter’s hair. Her son is in Class 10 in a mutt-run school in Tumkur, southern Karnataka, and is home for the festival, and her daughter studies in an English-medium school in the area under the EWS quota.
In the lane behind Sharanamma’s stands a deserted pandal with a life-size photograph of Ambedkar. “We had a puja here last night from 11 pm to 5 am. Look at them, still sleeping,” says Sharanamma’s sister Lakshmi, shaking up a man deep in slumber in front of the Ambedkar photograph. The man squints at the sun that’s already blazing, turns over to his side and goes back to sleep. “Make sure you wake up for the merevane (procession) or we will leave you behind,” she says.
The procession in the evening is the highlight of the festival, when Ambedkar and Buddha statues from each of the city’s 50-odd Dalit colonies set off in a grand march to Jagat Circle in the heart of Gulbarga. For the last three days, a park in the area has been holding Ambedkar events, with speeches by Dalit activists and ‘Happy birthday to you’ songs blaring out of loudspeakers till late in the night.
By around 4.30 pm, almost all of Buddha Nagar has started dressing up for the evening — girls in shimmery dresses, little boys in blue jackets with matching turbans and shades, women in heavy brocade saris, all of them sporting blue tilak. Sharanamma’s sister Lakshmi sits by the roadside removing the stitches from a sequinned orange and blue dress she bought for Rs 1,500. “It’s going to be very hot in this, but ivathina divasa special (it’s a special day),” she says. Around her, girls and women buy bangles and trinkets from a woman. A boy races up and down the road, screeching, “DJ barthane DJ (the DJ will be here soon).”
Anjali Patankar, 24, and her seven siblings won’t be a part of the procession this year. Their mother, a temporary sweeper at the railway station, died on the tracks over a year ago. “She tried to climb onto the platform, but couldn’t. The train hit her. Someone came and told me she was lying beside the tracks,” says Anjali, who works at a book-binding unit on the outskirts of the colony for Rs 3,000 a month. “I missed my mother a lot this morning,” she whispers, showing a photograph on her phone of her mother, her face radiant, with a bright red bindi and a shade of red lipstick. “She never wore lipstick. My sister used some app on her phone to do that,” Anjali smiles faintly. Her father has since remarried and now lives with his wife and an infant daughter in another house in the colony.
It’s now sundown and the merewane has begun. Drums roll, the DJ lights come on and the electronic music begins, the kind that hammers and pounds at your chest. But no one’s complaining — men and little boys bathed in the yellow and blue of the LED lights dance, some clamber onto the truck with the statues.
Sharanamma, who is back from the Congress office, is in a bit of a sulk. She hasn’t got her blouse. “I am not sure if I should go,” she says, helping her son tie a sheer blue turban.
Half an hour later, however, Sharanamma has changed her mind. She turns out in a rust coloured sari and asks, “How do I look? Good? Now be ready to dance.”
Finally, around 8.30 pm, after a brief prayer to Buddha from atop the tempo that holds statues of Buddha and Ambedkar, the procession begins — lights, music and more dance. “We won’t be back before 3 am. We will dance all the way to Jagat Circle. Don’t come here tomorrow. The men will all be drunk and sleeping till late,” screams a happy Sharanamma.
It’s the evening after, and it’s a different Buddha Nagar, edgy and tired. Most of the fairy lights have been taken off, the yellow street lights along the railway compound now cast long shadows, and men, women and children disappear into the darkness of the tracks with chembu in hand. After the high of the last several days, Buddha Nagar has woken up to the reality of its everyday existence.
But Sharanamma is excited. She is getting a Mahila Congress delegation to the colony and has gathered an audience of about 50 women from the neighbourhood. “They are almost here. Please stay back,” she says, directing the women to tarpaulin sheets spread out in front of her house.
Soon, the team arrives and, after the mandatory introductions, the speeches begin — extolling the work done by the Congress, why people should work for the ‘hand’, why they should remain vigilant against the BJP’s “false promises“, and how the Congress would make lives better for women of the colony.
Just then, Gowramma, who had until now been sitting on her haunches in the back row, stands up and screams, “We don’t want to hear these promises. Our grandfathers have voted for the Congress, our parents have, and so will we. They are all dead and now we are about to die, but nothing has changed here. We don’t even have toilets. What do you know about us? Tell us to vote for the Congress and we will; just don’t make these false promises.”
Other women join in, all of them standing up and angrily protesting about the lack of sandaas (toilets). “Our women have to wake up at 3 and 4 in the morning and go sit along the tracks. During daytime, we walk about half a kilometre and sit in the wild growth along the walls of the abandoned ‘Jain Hostel’. Earlier they said it was government land; now they say it’s private. And while we are there, men from outside harass us, sometimes chase us. Our children have to put up with all that. If the Railways rebuilds its boundary wall along our colony, where will we go?” asks Reshma, 25, who lives with her husband, in-laws and 12-year-old son in one of the houses in the cramped inner lanes of the colony. “And the stench… every time people come here, they hold their noses.”
A few months ago, the city corporation cleared their application for a toilet under the Swachh Bharat Mission and Reshma’s family got one built right at the entrance of their house. But with no water and no connection to the underground drainage on the main road, the toilet is of little use and is under lock and key.
Of the 200-odd households in the colony, barely 20 have functional toilets. While the main road outside the colony has an underground sewage line, most of the toilets in this row are not connected to it.
Though Gulbarga city was declared Open Defecation Free under the Swachh Bharat Mission on March 1 this year, several colonies such as Buddha Nagar stand testimony to the “gaps”. Fouzia Tarannum, who became Municipal Commissioner in February this year, says that of the 1.2 lakh households in the city, 90 per cent now have toilets, with 7,000 being built since 2015. “I understand there are gaps. We still need to build around 600 toilets and will see if more are required. Of course, certain parts of the city will be more challenging than the others since these are unplanned,” she says.
Back at the meeting at Sharanamma’s house, Chaman Farzana, All India Mahila Congress secretary and Gulbarga in-charge, has managed to pacify the women and is now talking about how, the very fact that they are asking questions of their elected representatives is thanks to Ambedkar. “If I ask you, what did Ambedkar give you, what would you say?” There are no answers. “Answer her,” says a woman sitting beside Gowramma, nudging her. “Why are you so tense? Our job is to clap for them, go home and vote,” replies Gowramma.
Next, Farzana talks of how Modi is “taking away your money“ and how Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY scheme would ensure that they all get Rs 6,000 in their accounts. Gowramma sniggers: “Paapa… sanna huduga (Poor little boy). How will Rahul Gandhi give us Rs 6,000? Why would he?”
A reserved constituency, Gulbarga has so far sent Mallikarjun Kharge twice to Parliament — 2009 and 2014 — after nine straight wins as MLA from the region. Now, as he seeks his twelfth win in a row, the challenges before him include a series of high-profile exits from the Congress, including that of Umesh Jadhav, Kharge’s protégé who crossed over to the BJP and is now standing against him. There is talk of Jadhav, who belongs to the Lambani or Banjara community, a Scheduled Caste group in Karnataka, splitting the Congress’s Dalit votes.
But despite its anger over toilets, Buddha Nagar will hear none of it. They talk of all that Kharge has “given“ them — Article 371(J) (the Constitutional provision introduced in 2012 that provides for special status, including reservation in jobs and educational institutions for those from the Hyderabad-Karnataka region), a Central university, the ESIC Hospital, Gulbarga airport, the schools and colleges run by the People’s Education Society founded by Kharge, and the sparkling white Buddha Vihara in Gulbarga, among others.
And even when they talk of all that has been denied to them — toilets, water, jobs and a steady income, their MUDRA loans approved but never disbursed, the Ujjwala cylinders “that Modi gave” but which are of no use because they have no money for a refill — they blame everybody from the Centre to the local BJP MLA and the Congress corporator they have “never seen“, but almost never Kharge.
“You are still here? There’s lot of talk here about you being a BJP agent. Why else would you be asking us so many questions, about our lives, elections,” Sharanamma tells us, walking around to one of the houses in the inner lanes. She is now angry and suspicious. As more people join in and tension mounts, one of them talks of how they “can’t trust people from Delhi.”
A few exchanges and phone calls later, with the group now calmer, they explain their fears. “There is a lot of talk that in minority and Dalit areas, people sent by the BJP have been taking away people’s voter I-cards, paying each of them Rs 5,000 and telling them that they would get their cards a day after the election. That way, the Congress votes go down and the BJP gains,” says one of them.
Jadhav, the BJP candidate against Kharge, dismisses the allegations. “This is complete rubbish. We don’t work against democracy. These are canards being spread by the Congress. In fact, we are not spending much money (on the elections); it’s the Congress that’s throwing money around,” he said.
Minutes after landing at the Gulbarga airport from Bengaluru, Kharge says, “My work speaks for myself. I have never criticised my opponent and won’t do so now.” In a reference to Jadhav, he says, “I definitely don’t want to criticise someone who has just joined the party (BJP) and is seeking votes in the name of Narendra Modi.”
Back in Buddha Nagar, an autorickshaw with loudspeakers has rolled in and parked outside the ‘Jain Hostel’— the first stirrings of the election. Among those who step out of their homes to watch are women whose homes share a broken boundary wall with the hostel. Standing on a slab of stone over the open drain outside her house, one of them says, “We are anyway for the hand. Kharge saahabaru namma Jai Bhim jaati (Kharge is our Jai Bhim caste). What jaati is this Modi? Do you know?”
The Congress has won every Lok Sabha election since 1977, except for two elections, 1996, when the Janata Dal won, and 1998, when the BJP won. Mallikarjun Kharge (above) has represented the constituency since the 2009 elections, when it was declared a reserved seat
2014: Mallikarjun Kharge (Cong)
2009: Mallikarjun Kharge (Cong)
2004: Iqbal Ahmed Saradgi (Cong)
1999: Iqbal Ahmed Saradgi (Cong)
The 8 Assembly seats in Gulbarga Lok Sabha constituency
Afzalpur: Malii Ayya Venkayya Guttedar, Congress
Chittapur (reserved): Priyank Kharge, Congress
Gulbarga Dakshin: Dattatraya C Patil Revoor, BJP
Gulbarga Rural (reserved): Basawaraj Mattimud, BJP
Gulbarga Uttar: Kaneez Fatima, Congress
Gurmitkal: Nagangouda, JD(S)
Jevargi: Ajay Dharam Singh, Congress
Sedam: Rajkumar Patil, BJP